Thursday, 30 September 2010

Entomological oddities

A few nice things have to to the lights recently and we have a couple of rarities from a "night out" in the open woodlands north of Mareeba.

This is an emesine reduviid. We dealt with this once before in a previous blog. They are such photogenic insects that they are hard to pass up.
Close-up we can see the beak that the emesine uses to inject its prey with chemicals to both anesthetize it and then later digest it. The hairs and colour help protect it as it lies in wait for a victim.

Recently my friend Peter Shanahan brought over an odd katydid that had flown into his living room. It turns out to be a species I described in own of my monographs years ago. I had found it in Kuranda but not since 2005 and did not have a photo of it to include in my recent Guidebook to Australian Katydids. Fortunately it can be viewed on this blog. Its name is Zaprochilus mongabarra Rentz. It is known from a handful of localities from north coastal New South Wales to Kuranda. This species was noted in a blog previously with regard to its relative Anthophiloptera dryas and other members of the Zaprochilinae. Recently a specimen of the latter was brought around by a friend. So it has been a good year for seeing some of these odd katydids. The cryptic posture disguises the katydid during the day when it is inactive.
This is the specimen that appeared at my lights a day after Peter found his. It has more green in its colour pattern.
A close-up view shows its two hearing organs. The hole beneath the pronotum is called the thoracic auditory organ and the slit visible on the far foreleg is called the tibial auditory organ. The mouthparts of all katydids of the Zaprochilinae are prognathous, that is, they are developed forward. This allows the katydids to delve deep into flowers to obtain pollen and nectar.
The mouthparts of Anthophiloptera dryas are similarly prognathous, an an adaptation to flower feeding.

This looks like an abstract painting but is one of Australia's odd neuropterans. It is a member of the family Psychopsidae. The family is best represented in Australia and South Africa. Larvae of these insects live under bark where they are probably predators. Adults are rare and active at night. These insects take up to two years to mature. It is an "entomological treat" to find one. There is another species with wing markings said to resemble a snake's head. But this may be carrying evolution a bit far! This is probably the genus Psychopsis.

Meet a mantispid. Not from one of the many outer space movies, this one is real. It resembles a mantis or a wasp but is neither. It's a member of the Neuroptera family Mantispidae. The fact that the forelegs resemble those of a mantis is a matter of pure convergence. Mantispids are not related to mantids. They are spider parasites and have elaborate biologies that are quite complicated. The mantispid larva enters the egg sac of the spider either by riding on the female spider and waiting for the egg sac to appear or by searching directly for the eggs. Some larval mantispids are known to produce chemicals that retard the development of the spider to coincide with their own development. The parasite forms a pupa within the egg sac of the spider and eventually emerges. This is probably a species of Euclimaciella.
This dorsal view shows how much it resembles a Polistes wasp.

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Termite explosion

After a warm rain this morning one of the several mounds of the termite genus Termes exploded with columns of winged termites exiting into the morning sun. Several other mounds of this species remained as usual with not exodus of termites.
A Termes sp. mound with reproductives emerging from mound. The mounds of this species are relatively small and are always dome-like. They are often green from an alga that grows on the surface.
Thousands of reproductive termites heading off on their nuptial flight. The rest of the occupants of this mound will carry on as usual reducing the dead wood in the rainforest to nutritious food that plants and other organisms can assimilate. They are valuable members of the rainforest community.

The reproductives, males and females are off to start new mounds. Of course, only a few may be successful. But the local insect-eating birds, lizards and the like had a field day. After a few minutes, it was all over and the mound was quiet.

A winged reproductive Termes sp. termite. The sole purpose of this individual is to find a mate and, if a female, to attempt to establish a new colony.

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Fungus lovers-flies and roaches

I was wandering (in my case stumbling) around the forest the other day and came across a palm frond lying on the ground that was especially attractive to two fly species. They were feeding upon something so small that I could not detect what it was. They may have been eating fungal spores or bacteria that coated the surface.

As usual when folks get together some courtship takes place. These two seemed interested on one another but continued feeding.

These are lauxaniid flies, probably Homoneura nigra Kim. These flies live as larvae in the soil where they feed on decomposing vegetation. They move around with the wings peculiarly bent downwards. I haven't seen this species before, but then I've not really looked for it. As an aside I must take this opportunity to reveal the genius of SP Kim, describer of the species and entomological illustrator extraordinaire. The late "Kim" as he was known was employed by CSIRO Entomology as a technical illustrator. He was almost without rival- among the best of his day. He knew how to emphasize structures and what they would look like when they were reduced for publication. When I asked him how long it took for him to do the Cooloola Monster habitus drawing he said 3 weeks for each sex! But they were well worth the wait. In the "good old days" we were more concerned with quality than quantity and this excessive expenditure of time did not worry the management.

Kim's illustrations can be found in most of my publications from 1978 till the late 90's. Kim pursued a higher degree during much of his time at CSIRO and his specialty was the fly family Lauxaniidae. His thesis is a monument to persistence as well as his artisitc skills.

A typical plate with illustrations of SP Kim. From Rentz, 1985.

But I diverge. Another visitor to the palm frond was this distinctive little fly with its humeral spot. Perhaps, one of our readers can inform us of the family. It was very intent on feeding but the numbers of this species were well below those of the lauxaniid.

Looking further, I discovered a fungus-killed ant under a palm leaf that was being visited by two first instars of a cockroach, probably Mediastinia sp., a not uncommon visitor to the lights. During the day these flat little cockroaches (among the smallest of cockroaches in the rainforest with adults measuring about 6mm) hide in tightly unfurling leaves.

You can judge the size of the cockroach bubs relative to the size of the ant which in itself is not very large. Roaches are very important in reducing organic material to soil. In terms of numbers and biomass, they are probably near the top of the scale in the rainforest. But I'll more to say on that later.


Kim, S. P. 1994. Revision of the Australian species of Homoneura van der Wulp, Trypetisoma Malloch, and allied genera. (Diptera: Lauxaniidae). 443 pp. Monographs on Invertebrate Taxonomy, vol. 1. CSIRO Information Services, Collingwood, Vic.

Rentz, D. C. F., 1985. A monograph of the Tettigoniidae of Australia. Vol. 1. The Tettigoniinae, with an appendix by D. H. Colless. 384 pp. CSIRO Australia, Collingwood, Vic.,

Thursday, 16 September 2010

An Interesting Dilemma

An interesting Dilemma

A situation has arisen recently that is worthy of note here.

A large stick insect, the Giant Spiny Stick insect, Eurycantha calcarata Lucas, has been found for sale in Melbourne & Sydney pet stores. This impressive species is related to the famous Lord Howe Stick Insect, Dryococelus australis (Montrouzier). The similarity of the two is quite obvious. You can check the two in Brock and Hasenpusch’s book listed below.

An adult make of the Giant Spiny Stick Insect.

An Adult female of the Giant Spiny Stick Insect.

This species, like offerings in many pet shops, does not make a good pet. When disturbed, males raise the hind legs and emit a powerful smelly secretion from the tip of the abdomen. This problem is that fingers get caught between the hind tibia and femur; the hooks on the latter can penetrate the skin to the bone. So this is not a good pet, and especially not suitable for small children. In New Guinea local people are known to use the hind legs of a related species with bigger spines as fish hooks. So these spines are formidable defence weapons for this stick.

Hind leg of an adult male. Note the robust recurved spine.

The problem with this stick insect in Australia is that it is not really certain that this insect actually occurs in Australia. The original species description was said to include specimens from Cape York, but to date no "reliable" specimens have been found naturally in Australia. There could have been an error in labelling all those years ago and the specimens included in the original description may not have actually come from Australia. Dozens of expeditions to Cape York by all sorts of biologists have occurred over the years but no one has ever collected one of these giants.

Nymphs (subadults) of the Giant Spiny Stick Insect.

When questioned, the collector of the specimens found in Melbourne pet shops claims he found them in the Hopevale area. (Hopevale is not far from Cooktown, Qld.) This is a popular collecting locality for entomologists. No other Giant Spiny Stick Insects have turned up in any collections form there.

The most likely scenario is that eggs of this species were smuggled into Australia from Papua New Guinea where the species is not uncommon. But because the original description states that some specimens were from Cape York, it is not illegal to possess them or sell them in pet shops in Australia because they may actually come from Cape York if the collector is telling the truth.

An important issue looms. This species is primarily a ground-dwelling stick. However, a potential economic problem may develop because the Giant Spiny Stick Insect feeds on palms and is a pest of Coconuts and Oil Palms in PNG. Australia has several hundred native palm species and a large number of introduced palms grown in parks and gardens etc. If this insect is alien to Australia, it could end up adapting to tropical Australia and become a pest.

Geneticists are attempting to use DNA sequencing to determine if the Australian specimens actually came from New Guinea populations. If so, there is a good case to prevent further sale of the species and destroy the known living cultures in this country.

This is an important case for several reasons. I guess it is possible for a few small eggs to get by the X-ray machines in airports. If so, some tightening up is necessary because of potential “agricultural sabotage” by unscrupulous individuals. Also it shows how easily something of potential economic concern can slip through the system. With the relatively recent introduction of Fire Ants and the Electric Ants to Australia, and the potential damage they can cause, there is a good case for strengthening the surveillance of goods coming into this country. With the huge numbers of containers entering the country from many ports, complete surveillance may never be possible. However, I suspect thorough checking has a relatively low priority with governments these days. Agricultural concerns seem to be of minor consideration.


Brock, P. D., Hasenpusch, J., 2009. The Complete Guide to Stick and Leaf Insects of Australaiia. CSIRO Publications, Collingwood, Vic. 204 pp.

Sunday, 12 September 2010

Miscellaneous Miscellany

Garden Miscellany

A number of “creatures of interest" have appeared in the past few days and here they are!

The flowering of one of our Amorphophallus plants (see Aroids) has attracted some interested observers. This Rove beetle, is active by day and its slow swooping flights can be frequently seen, especially if a Cane Toad, for example, has been killed in the driveway or run over by the mower. It is more colourful than most Rove beetles. It is said to be a predator and so would be looking for prey at a source that would attract them, like a stinky Amorphophallus flower.

The Rove Beetle, Actinus macleayi, family Staphylinidae.

St Andrew’s Cross Spider, Argiope keyserlingi is a widespread spider and everyone who is observant in the garden has seen it. The X is called a “stabilimentum” and apparently has a number of functions. It is thought to attract insects. It’s silk is different from the rest of the web and reflects UV light that may attract pollinating insects using UV to find flowers. It is also hypothesized that it helps the spider to camouflage itself and additionally warns birds that there is a web there. When annoyed, the spider shakes the web vigorously and the startle effect of the “X” may help in convince the attacker that it should move on.

St Andrew's Cross Spider, Argiope keyserlingi in its web.

A case of mistaken identity

I was surprised when this creature appeared at the light. At first I thought it was an odd Milionia queenslandica Jordan and Rothchild. A closer look revealed it was a butterfly. The Purple Dusk-flat, Chaetocneme porphyropsis (Meyrick & Lower) is a skipper butterfly with a very restricted geographic distribution. It is known from from Cape Tribulation to the Paluma Range near Townsville. The caterpillars feed on several rainforest trees and at least one introduce tree, Cinnamomum camphora. See Braby (2000: 68).

The Purple Dusk-flat, Chaetocneme porphyropis, family Hesperiidae; Pyrginae

Milionia queenslandica Jordan and Rothchild, family Geometridae, Ennominae.

Similarities don’t end there.

This little moth, Synechodes coniophora, is active during the day flying like the wind and alights only for a fraction of a second. It also flies at night since the moth is found occasionally at the lights. The caterpillars bore into the stems of palm flowers and fruits, especially Lawyer palms, Calamus spp. I find them buzzing around the giant Oil Palm we have in our driveway.

Synechodes coniophora Turner; family Brachodidae.

Love Bugs, flies of the family Bibionidae, Plecia ornaticornis ( see Love Bugs)are commonly seen on flowers during the day and around lights at night. They seem to be shunned by vertebrate and invertebrate predators alike. Ants avoid them. Birds leave them on the light sheet and my friend the Boyd’s Forest Dragon doesn’t touch them. Their similarity to the Synechodes moth is striking but the resemblances don’t end there. The cantharid beetle fits these criteria too. They are probably part of a Mullerian Mimicry Complex. See Mullerian Mimicry).

Plecia ornaticornis; family Bibionidae

Elegance in moths!

Barnatola panarista (Turner) has been seen on this site before but it is a beaut little moth. Nothing is known of its biology.

Barantola panarista (Turner); family Depressariidae.

Luxuriating Turkeys

These turkeys are taking advantage of the warm spring weather to do a bit of “anting”. They lay down in the sun and expose their feathers and look very silly. The warmth of the sun kills lice (Mallophaga) that live on the feather shafts. These parasitic insects are very sensitive to temperature. They die if it varies only a degree or two. That’s why bird lice don’t survive for long on humans. We are just too cold for them.

The wonders of spring!

All but unconscious in the sun!


Braby, M. 2000. Butterflies of Australia: Their Identification, Biology and Distribution. Volume one. CSIRO Publications, Collingwood, Vic. 457 pp.